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The Sudden Stop At the End

Not with a bang, but a whimp— actually, it was more like a dull thud.

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

And just like that, it was over.

I write these same words at the end of pretty much every season, for how many years now I don’t even remember. Unless you happen to win a championship, it seems like the end is always swift, and early, and not at all what you were hoping for.

And just like that, it was over.

I have walnut trees.

Big ones. One on either side of my house. The worst thing about them is the excess gutter maintenance they create; the second worst is the walnuts. Big, surprisingly heavy green orbs that fall off, particularly on days like several we’ve had recently, when the wind was blowing and there was a bit of a storm in the air. The walnuts fall, and they hit the roof with a thud. A dull ‘clunk’. I can lay in bed at night and every once in awhile a particularly large one will be blown off, sounding as if some cut rate Santa and equally cut rate reindeer are alighting upon my roof.

The sound of the end of the Cardinals’ season was like a walnut hitting the roof. It wasn’t a crash, nothing so dramatic as that. It was a thud. Dull but emphatic, muffled but insistent. A dead sound, as of something spent and now empty, inflicting its exhaustion on the world in the only way it has left.

The end always hurts, sometimes a lot, sometimes only a little, sometimes earlier, sometimes later, but it always hurts. This one shouldn’t hurt as much as it does; the paradox of the 2019 Cardinals can be summed up in how far they got and how miserable they looked at the end. An NLCS berth should never feel like a failure, and yet the dead thud of the Cardinals’ season falling down onto the roof, then rolling noisily toward the gutter, feels like failing on a far more dire scale than should even be contemplated in connection with this team.

And just like that, it was over.

In the end, if the Cardinals were going to lose, they were probably going to lose the way they lost. Early in the season it was the starting rotation holding the club back, but that hadn’t been an issue for a long time. In fact, for most of the second half of the season the team’s starters were doing the lion’s share of the winning, while the bullpen chugged along, good but down from its John Gant-led heights of early summer. The offense was really the Achilles’ heel all along. It was never really good, and prone to strange stretches of seeming helplessness here and there. We saw one of those stretches; unfortunately, that stretch was the last the Redbirds would play in 2019.

Actually, that’s not entirely fair. The offense was supremely awful in the series against the Nationals, but it wasn’t only the offense. The defense was the strongest aspect of the club pretty much all season, and even that failed in the crunch. Marcell Ozuna failed to come up with a catch. Kolten Wong made both a throwing error and flat-out dropped a likely double play feed. The ‘pen allowed things to snowball in game three, while Dakota Hudson had the kind of meltdown in game four we haven’t seen from him since May. Hudson had shaky starts here and there, of course, but hadn’t just gotten pasted since early in the season. Washington played brilliant baseball, and the Cardinals played horrible baseball. Sometimes these things just happen.

So laying the collapse entirely at the feet of the offense is not fair. Everything failed. Most things failed in May, as well, when the Cardinals went 9-18 for the month, but things take on a completely different level of importance in October’s autumnal glow. The Cards played as poorly as they played all season for four consecutive days, and it just so happened those four days were enough to end their campaign.

And just like that, it was over.

The 2019 season should not, it must be said, be defined by a sudden and brutal playoff collapse. The sour taste will last for awhile, yes, but with distance this season should take its rightful place among the more successful campaigns of recent years. The Redbirds of 2019 pushed back over 90 wins, both in actual terms and underlying metrics. (In fact, interestingly, they were a better team by Pythagorean record than the Braves but worse than the Nationals, making their results seem bitterly apropos in retrospect.) They returned to the playoffs, added a division championship banner to the collection, and returned to the NLCS for the fifth time in nine years. It’s no wonder Cardinal fans are looked at as spoiled when calls for a front office cleaning accompany that sort of track record.

That’s not to say, of course, that everything was perfect, and I wonder how we will view 2019 down the road beyond a return to prominence and a playoff run that ended in rough fashion. In many ways — most ways even, perhaps — 2019 felt like the end of an era. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it felt that way to me. We saw Adam Wainwright make a remarkable comeback, saving his very best for the postseason, but his future at 38 has to be in question. Yadier Molina will be back in 2020, and also had some great late-season moments, but the overall body of work this year was weak, and it wasn’t bad luck or an injury interrupting a sterling campaign. Yadi is still just fine, and still brings that extra coach intangible something to the field, but he’s also 37, and a catcher, and just posted an 87 wRC+. The time is coming. Matt Carpenter looked suddenly old. Marcell Ozuna could leave, maybe should leave. Michael Wacha is almost certainly out the door. The 2013-era core of the club may very well have seen last call come and go this season. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

And just like that, it was over.

On the other hand, it felt like a beginning of something new in 2019 at times as well. Paul DeJong had a brutal campaign offensively after the first month or two, seeing his production vanish into a mostly-BABIP’d hole, but he established this year that his 2018 defensive excellence was no fluke, and at just 26 with a contract that could run through 2025 he gives the Cardinals the kind of stability at shortstop they’ve lacked since at least the Renteria years, and really more like since Ozzie Smith hung up his glove in the mid-90s. Tommy Edman came up and proved an immediate sparkplug, both with his glove and his bat, particularly on the bases. Jack Flaherty established his ace bona fides, and while Dakota Hudson may still have serious warts on his game, he’s also perfectly fine as a mid- to back-end of the rotation starter. There could be more in there, but even if there isn’t he rolls up grounders like almost no one else in the game.

That is the essential dichotomy of the Cardinals at this moment in time: depending on how one wishes to view the team, the arrow could be pointing up or down as we look to the future. The are good things happening, and there are bad things happening. The coming offseason feels incredibly important, but at the same time the 2020 season feels as much like a directional decision as it does a win-now campaign. It is almost certain the Redbirds of ‘20 will look substantially different from El Birdos of the season just completed. This team is a team we will not see again, for good and for ill.

And just like that, it was over.

What I will take away from this season is difficult to say. It was an exhilarating ride at times, a frustrating slog at times, a missed opportunity at times. For four months, the Cardinals played like title contenders; for two months, they looked dead in the water. In March, April, July, August, and September, the Cards’ run differential was +135 in 109 games. Extrapolate that out and you get a +201 differential for a full season, right in line with the +204 of the Yankees and better than every other team in baseball save the Astros and Dodgers. In May and June, however, the Cards’ run differential was -33 in 53 games played. Extrapolate that number over a full season and you’re looking at a -101 differential, or basically the equivalent of this year’s Toronto Blue Jays or San Francisco Giants. Not historically bad by any means; the Cardinals at their very worst would never be confused for this year’s Tigers or Marlins. Still, plenty bad all the same.

Maybe that’s just a coincidence, and the dividing line seems so bright that it’s easy to ascribe qualities to this club which aren’t necessarily there. If the Cardinals had played the exact same 91 win season (92 wins by Pythag), but the wins had been evenly distributed, would we view them differently? Probably. So maybe we shouldn’t think of the team as so schizophrenic at all, and it just so happened that their bad play was clustered in two months of the season.

But it felt schizophrenic, is my only answer to that. The Cardinals of May did not only not win like the Cards of August, but they didn’t even look like the same team most nights. We can slice things statistically a thousand different ways, but sometimes you have to simply look at what’s in front of you, and my eyes did not see the same team at all times this season. Why that might be I don’t know, but I know how watching this team felt.

In the end, that schizophrenia may be what I most recall about this club, but it’s also possible that feeling fades with time, and the 2019 Cardinals become simply another 90-92 win team that won the division, won a playoff series, and then slipped to an ignominious exit in the NLCS. Perhaps the feeling of strangeness fades, and this endlessly confusing team becomes just another squad in the memory bank, the year Flaherty went on that crazy run and the Cards swept four from the Cubs in Chicago, ruining their season and possibly pushing Joe Maddon out the door. The highlights remain, but the day to day ups and downs tend to flatten and fade over time.

Actually, maybe the way we view this season ends up turning on how next season goes. If the good stuff bubbling up in 2019 comes to fruition in 2020, it’s almost certain this year’s club will feel different five years from now than if the 2019 squad really does end up as a last stand of sorts, before Yadi rides off into the sunset, and Waino too, and Marcell Ozuna signs elsewhere and proceeds to be a downballot MVP vote-getter for three or four years while Dylan Carlson turns into a perennial 2.7 win outfielder. So maybe 2019 will end up as an inkblot, with perspective and time filling in the blanks for us depending upon where the Cardinals go from here.

For now, though, I remain slightly confused, slightly dazed, and sad that my team is no longer playing. It always has to end sometime, but it never feels like it should end so suddenly. A loss like the one we just witnessed feels like someone should be able to call a do-over, like a kid swinging and missing and claiming he just wasn’t ready, that his helmet slipped down over his eyes, or maybe he doesn’t have his shoelaces done up properly. A season full of so many ups and downs was bound to finish on one or the other, it seemed; the bad news is, it was the downest of downs we saw last. I’ll be rooting for Max Scherzer to win a ring now, and I’m still bitter he won’t be wearing a Cardinal uniform when he tries. Probably never will, in fact, going the way of Mark Buerhle, albeit less vocally, as the hometown kid who wanted to come home but just never fit into the plans somehow.

The 2019 season was a success. The end of the 2019 season was a brutal failure. It was a season of baseball, and now there is no more, at least of the Cardinal variety. I am sad, because I am always sad when there are no more games to flip on in the car on the way from here to there, and from there to here, and no box scores to peruse, no lousy broadcast conversations to bitch about, no more homers to cheer or ballpark sunburns or Jack Flaherty starts to look forward to or late-inning rallies or singles to the opposite field which always always always must be referred to as nice pieces of hitting. The offseason awaits, with its own brand of heartbreak and excitement, but the games are done. Goodbye, baseball. I’ll see you again soon. I love you.

And just like that, it was over.